And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen. Anthem for Doomed Youth.
Travelling south of Stratford-upon-Avon and crossing the fourteen-arched medieval Bridge over the Avon built around 1490 by Hugh Clopton a merchant and Lord Mayor of London, the road on the left runs for two-thirds of a mile into the small community of Tiddington. A short road on the left is Carter’s Lane, and here a Master Carpenter, Thomas Ellis and his wife Dinah, lived during the last years of the nineteenth century with their six sons. The third son, BERTIE ELLIS was born on January 1 1896 and became the only one of their boys admitted to King Edward VI School.
He had attended the National Elementary School in Alveston and was awarded a Hampton Lucy Grammar School Foundation, and remaining at KES until 1912 when he began to work with his father. Even today it is a pleasant and gentle walk from Tiddington to Stratford, and would have been more so a hundred years ago when it was still possible to walk by the river through meadows of primroses and hawthorn.
Enlisting, either at the same time or a little after three of his brothers in 1914, he joined the 1/7th Battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment that as a unit of the Territorial Force was stationed at Coventry in the Warwickshire Infantry Brigade of the 1st South Midland Division. Within a month it moved to Witham near Chelmsford for final training and equipping, and crossed to Le Havre on March 22 1915. Another boy from Stratford-upon-Avon described the crossing in a letter published in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald: ‘We were packed like sardines and slept where we could, the majority on the top deck in the open, quite a treat…Everyone here is under the impression it will soon be finished, and looking forward to being home for August.’ (Private Ackroyd was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme on July 14 1916).
1/7th Battalion moved directly to Flanders where it began digging trenches at Dranouter, just south-west of Kemmel before moving into the line through Nieuwkerke near Ploegsteert in mid-April: an area familiar to many KES boys and badly damaged during the war being so close to the front line for so long. Its trenches were sodden and were subjected to heavy and constant artillery bombardment. The rest of 1915 was a typical example of a regiment that somehow did not become involved in significant action, and moved between France and Flanders without being either involved in any large scale attacks or the victims of any.
Written from the office of the Privy Purse at Buckingham Palace on June 3 1915, Thomas Ellis received a letter acknowledging that he had four sons serving with the land and sea forces (Lance Corporal William Ellis, The Durham Light Infantry; Sergeant Instructor Ellis, Royal Marine Artillery; Corporal Ellis, The Royal Engineers; Private Bertie Ellis, 7th Battalion The Royal Warwickshire Regiment):‘Sir – I am commanded by the King to convey to you an expression of His Majesty’s appreciation of the patriotic spirit which has prompted your four sons to give their services at the present time to the Army and Navy. The King was much gratified to hear of the manner in which they have so readily responded to the call of their Sovereign and their country. And I am to express to you and to them His Majesty’s congratulations on having contributed in so full a measure to the great cause for which all the people of the British Empire are so bravely fighting. – I have the honour to be, sir, your obedient servant. Ponsonby, Keeper of the Privy Purse. Their two other sons were also engaged in government work – J.E. Ellis as a Sub- Inspector of the European Police in Colombo, and W.J. Ellis with the Metropolitan Police.
Ellis and his battalion followed the routine of five or six days in the front line alternating with a period in the support trenches and another at rest in billets. Occasionally they were in bivouacs, either while in reserve or well away from the front. ‘Rest’ very often meant training or making up working parties for the limitless tasks associated with the regiments of war – transporting supplies, repairing trenches or digging new ones, setting up barbed wire defences – sometimes at night in no man’s land – and building roads and laying railways. Even though away from the front line they were seldom out of danger from long range German artillery, and a week did not pass without casualties. When in the front lines, aggressive units set up raiding parties on the trenches opposite with the simple objective of killing as many of the enemy as possible and perhaps to take prisoners for intelligence purposes. In addition, reconnaissance patrols were sent to probe the German defences. During the very wet month of May 1915, the Battalion was plagued with lice and suffered thirty casualties during a German raid on a listening post.
At the end of a year of such heavy losses in the British Army, the Battalion recorded that twenty nine men had been killed in action.
At first it seemed that 1916 would be no more unkind to the Battalion, although at the end of January a large German bomb exploded in its trenches and a raiding party of four Germans entered the line and seized a Lewis gun. In March, a raid by men of 8 Battalion provoked an artillery bombardment that killed two men and wounded twelve others.
Since its arrival in France and for most of 1915 it had been in the region of Fonquevillers, south-west of Arras and west of Bapaume, and it remained there into 1916. As always, the main hazard for the troops was shell fire often culminating in artillery duels. On July 1, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, Ellis was with 1/7th Battalion holding trenches under fire and carrying ammunition to the forward trenches. Its turn to attack La Boisselle came on July 14. Heavily shelled as it moved forward, it attacked at 7:30am reaching their objective and holding enemy trenches for seven hours, but at a heavy cost with sixty-eight killed, including four officers, and eighty-two men were wounded. Attacking again the following day the troops failed to destroy a well positioned machine gun that devastated them during the main attack at 3:30 in the afternoon. A further attack for July 25 was abandoned when the Battalion was pinned down in its trenches by enemy shell fire, but orders came for a renewed attack the following day with Anzac troops that successfully drove the Germans back. It had been an expensive month for the Battalion with eighty-six men killed. Following a further, smaller attack in August, the rest of 1916 passed without any serious incident, and the total for the year had been 150 men killed.
1917 was a year that seemed to threaten violent action but that rarely materialised. Patrols became frequent, and there was a successful attack made on high ground at Templeux-la-Fosse. As the rain continued into August, there were some small victories in spite of the tanks sinking in the mire.
The Battalion’s main engagement of the year was the Battle of Broodseinde on September 4. This was in the area between the small communities of Passsendaele and Zonnebeke. Battle stores had arrived and the troops moved to their assembly positions in conditions that were ideal. Under a bright but overcast moon all were in position by 12:30am. On a front of two Companies with a reserve company two hundred yards behind, the attack began at 6:00am. The Company on the right found advance very difficult because of the shell holes and a glutinous mud, and was held up temporarily by the fire from a machine gun until it was destroyed by the company on the left. Pushing on, and taking many prisoners, they suddenly came under their own artillery barrage and had to withdraw. The left Company destroyed a further machine gun and advanced to its first objective. Support companies advanced – one found itself unsupported on both sides and withdrew, the second encountered very strong resistance and withdrew to link up with the first in time to beat off a number of determined German counter-attacks. 157 Two Vickers guns were positioned for maximum fire power and the troops consolidated their positions as night fell. German shelling increased the following day with snipers active on both sides, but there were no enemy attacks. The battle casualties included three officers and twenty-three men killed, three officers and 140 men wounded, and there were fourteen missing.
During the early Autumn of 1917, the Austrians and Germans had made serious advances to the River Piave ( that begins in the Alps and flows into the Adriatic Sea), and the whole Division including the thirty-five officers and 813 men of 1/7 Battalion were ordered to travel by train to Italy. Italy had been fighting alone against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) but following its catastrophic defeat at Caporetto with the Italian army reduced in size by one half, and with the province of Friuli and much of the Veneto province abandoned, France and Britain rushed reinforcements to the Italian front.
During the final weeks of 1917, Bertie Ellis had become weaker with a long and trying illness, and within a few weeks of arriving in Italy he died of pneumonia in 24 Casualty Clearing Station on February 5. The chaplain, Rev. W.H.M. Clark, wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Ellis saying ‘the sad news has probably reached you through the War Office. For a while he seemed to be making a brave fight of it so that I was quite hopeful, and then he took a turn for the worse. I prayed with him and gave him God’s blessing, the last thing that night he passed away. He was buried in our British Cemetery and a cross has been put up to mark his grave. May God comfort you in this heavy sorrow.’
Bertie Ellis had survived many serious dangers on the battlefield only to die at the beginning of a period in Italy when danger was very rare. He was 22.
The Battle of the Piave River in June 1918 was a decisive victory for the Italians and considered a direct cause for the disintegration of the Austro- Hungarian army and the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire later in the year. Even today, for the Italians one motto recalls the battle: ‘Better to live one single day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.’
Bertie Ellis is buried in the Giavera British Cemetery in Arcade, Italy, and is commemorated on the Alveston War Memorial and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.
…there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.
Rupert Brooke. The Soldier.